What is the Church?

Let's begin by thinking of some of the ways in which the word 'church' is used today. Try to make up a few sentences using the word 'church'. Then ask yourselves what the word meant in each sentence. You may find it helpful to write the sentences down so that you don't forget them.

Do this exercise now, before going any further with these notes!

What have you learned? The word 'church' is used in a variety of different ways. Most often it refers to a building - Altrincham Methodist Church; sometimes it refers to a denomination - The Methodist Church; sometimes to Christians in a given place - the church in Great Britain; but the idea of the church as a building is probably the most common.

This is in sharp contrast to the biblical understanding of 'church'. In the pages of the New Testament the word 'church' is never used to refer to a building, because the first Christians didn't have any buildings which were devoted especially to Christian usage. In the New Testament the word 'church' always refers to people and never buildings.

The Greek word 'ekklesia' was used in secular Greek to describe a group of citizens who were gathered to discuss the affairs of state. It comes from two Greek words 'ek' meaning 'out of' and 'klesis' (from 'kaleo' - to call) meaning 'called'. The New Testament church was seen as a group of people who were called out of the world for a specific task. They were chosen people. They were called for a specific task; but most important of all the church was, and is, people!

Sometimes today you come across groups of Christians who attempt to preserve the distinction between buildings and people. Occasionally you see a notice board which says something like 'This is where the Stroud Baptist Church meets'. The early Methodists sought to preserve this distinction by calling their buildings 'chapels'. The chapel was where the church met.

Spend some time talking about the distinction between the church as a building and the church as people. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • How important are buildings to the church today?
  • Do we spend too much time, effort and money maintaining church buildings?
  • Does anyone in the group know of situations where a church has been established without the purchase of a building?
  • Is it easier to sense that we really are church when we meet in places other than the church building?

Wherever Christians gather - there is the church!

A Picture of the Church

The New Testament gives us several different pictures of the church. Sometimes it is described as a 'living temple' with each member as a stone and all the stones together forming something which is built for the worship of God. Sometimes it is described at 'the bride of Christ'. Here the emphasis is on a loving relationship between Christ and those he has chosen to be his own.

One of the most common pictures of the church is that of the body of Christ, where all the members are different parts of the one body, each fulfilling a different function, but together being Jesus in the world today.

This picture is used when Paul writes to the Church at Corinth. You can read about it in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.

Get one member of the group to read this passage now while everyone else follows in their own Bibles.

What do we learn about the church from this picture? Note the following things:

  1. There ought to be both a unity and a diversity about the church (12:12-13).
  2. We all belong to Christ and to each other, so
    • We need each other (12:15,16,21)
    • We differ from each other (12:17-20)
    • We are to care for each other (12:22-26)
    • We are all individuals ( 12:27)
  3. Try to relate these truths to your local church
    • In what ways are our unity and our diversity demonstrated?
    • Does our church provide a genuine Christian welcome to a rich variety of people who may see things differently, but who are united in Christ?
    • Are there people who don't feel needed? How can we help them to feel that they really matter?
    • Is jealousy and rivalry a problem?
    • Are there those who see themselves as being more important than the rest?
    • How can we help them to see their position in biblical terms, without making them feel unloved?
    • It is often easier to 'weep with those who weep' than to 'rejoice with those who rejoice'. How easy do we find it to be genuinely glad when others are blessed, used and praised?
    • How do we create the kind of atmosphere in which each person feels that they have a distinctive contribution to bring?

The First Christians - Read Acts 2:42-47.

This is the earliest account we have of the first Christian church. Can you identify the things which were important for their life together and their spiritual growth? It is a wonderful picture of the way in which the first believers learned together, worshipped together, loved each other in practical ways and grew day by day. No one told them that this is how they ought to behave. It was the result of the Spirit's coming. The Holy Spirit transformed them and made this kind of community the 'natural' expression of their faith.

What lessons do we need to learn from them?

If that is what the Holy Spirit could do with such unlikely material there is hope for every Christian community when he comes among us.